Viola VanDijk, known to her loved ones as Vi, died in Saint John on Feb. 16 at the age of 73 from heart disease. Her friends remember her as a strong champion for Indigenous people who live off-reserve and for Indigenous women.
Gail Paul, former president of the Indigenous Women’s Association of the Wabanaki Territories, was a friend of Viola’s. She met Viola two decades ago when they both worked at the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council.
“Vi said, ‘let’s make it workable.’ I will always remember that when there is conflict in my life. That is only one teaching of many from her. Her family will sadly miss her but I know that her spirit lives on,” said Paul.
Viola is survived by her husband, Tony, three children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandson.
In 1996, Viola received a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work then worked with the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council to support Indigenous people living off-reserve to find employment and financial support for higher education.
Viola was also active with Skigin Elnoog Housing Corporation, an organization devoted to meeting the housing needs of off-reserve Indigenous people.
In 2012, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for her efforts supporting Indigenous Peoples living off-reserve.
Viola was a champion for women’s rights, particularly Indigenous women’s rights. Besides the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council and Skigin Elnoog, Viola worked with the Native Women’s Association of New Brunswick and the New Brunswick Women’s Council. In the 1980s, she participated in the successful effort to amend the Indian Act to ensure equal status rights for Indigenous women in Canada.
The 1992 book, Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, as told to Janet Silman, documents how women from Tobique First Nation led an effort to end legislated gender-based discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada. The women occupied the Tobique band office, they marched a hundred miles to Ottawa, and made testimonies to the United Nations.
As Viola’s mourners note, sadly, many of these strong women have passed away but the memory of their efforts on behalf of their communities lives on, inspiring the next generations.
Part of Viola’s obituary reads: “Viola will be remembered for her feisty spirit and sense of humour which remained a part of her earthly being even in her final days.”
Tracy Glynn teaches courses on social movements at St. Thomas University and is a writer with the NB Media Co-op.